With 25 laps remaining and the AAA 400 about to restart for the final time, the pieces had seemingly come together for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to snap his 15-month winless drought.
He had one of the fastest cars on track all weekend at Dover International Speedway, was lined up fourth and in the preferred outside groove and had fresher tires than any of the three drivers ahead of him. Yet it wasn't to be as Earnhardt got no higher than second and could never find a way to pass eventual winner and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.
"I felt like as we got the traffic, Jimmie was starting to struggle a little bit in the last couple of laps," Earnhardt said. "My car actually got better the longer I ran and drove better, did what I needed it to do in the corner as we ran.
"I think the difference in the tires between our two cars was about to show. But the race is 400 laps. That's the way it is. ... We were going to have a helluva party if we could get to him."
What hindered Earnhardt Sunday were a pair of issues on pit road.
The first occurred on Lap 117 as NASCAR's most popular driver had built up a hefty four-second lead and was preparing to make a routine green-flag pit stop. But as the he attempted to bring his No. 88 Chevrolet into the pits, Earnhardt didn't get slowed down enough and couldn't get all four tires below the commitment line, and, not wanting to incur a penalty, he continued around the track.
When the cycle of pit stops was completed Earnhardt had fallen to eighth, nine seconds behind Johnson, who inherited the lead. Earnhardt's troubles on pit road continued when he again entered the pits as the leader, but was too slow and allowed Johnson and others to pass him.
"If you really look at the race as a whole, (the two pit stops) did cost us a little bit, at least the mistake I made missing pit road completely," Earnhardt said. "We had the lead, gave up the lead. Jimmie had the lead and was able to take advantage of that clean air when it counted.
"If I had not given up that track position, had a smart enough race to keep the lead when it counted right at the end, we might have won the race. It would have been hard to get by us, just like it was to get by Jimmie."
Nevertheless, Earnhardt's runner-up finish was his highest result since a second at Fontana in March. And the 80 laps he led Sunday were a season-best.
However, not having won in 48 starts, and all but eliminated from the championship -- Earnhardt is 10th in the standings, 57 points behind leader Matt Kenseth with seven races to go -- Earnhardt is not satisfied with finishing second. What he desperately wants is "trophies" (wins) and from his advantage point, sees no difference between placing second or 10th.
"We came really close today," Earnhardt said. "I don't feel like today was a highlight for us. I think this is how it's supposed to be every week. I know that competition's difficult and tough -- Jimmie being one of the best drivers the sport has ever seen and running at one of his better racetracks, it was going to be a challenge. But I felt like we had enough car and tires for sure to beat him."